Put down that beer and grab a glass of vino
I enjoy reading other wine blogs and seeing what the blogging public has to say about wine, food, and how they go together. One of my favorite blogs is Dr. Vino and in particular the section titled “food and wine.” As a wine retailer and Sommelier at heart, I strongly believe wine’s most important purpose is to accompany food. In this section of the blog, Tyler Colman, also known as Dr. Vino, asks the public for their opinions on what wines to pair with non-traditional wine foods (if there is such a thing). No matter how good, bad or truly awful I find the suggestions, I enjoy the challenge of difficult food and wine pairings and reading about other people’s ideas. In this week’s section, Dr. Vino queries his readership about the appropriate wine to serve with one of the most emblematic foods of armchair quarterbacks —the Seven-Layer Dip:
For those of you who haven’t enjoyed the dish, imagine a layer of refried beans imbued with chiles or other seasoning, then slather on a couple of ripe avocados (or guacamole), smother that in an inch of sour cream, then add an inch of salsa, some lettuce, cheese and possibly olives. Scoop it out with tortilla chips. Although it may sound gross to the uninitiated, it has an amazingly magnetic effect on those in the room.
So what would you pair with Seven-Layer Dip–or is it impossible?!?
This post got me thinking about food and wine pairing and how to pair an iconic snack like this with an Italian wine. It’s common practice for sommeliers to pair native wines with the food’s country of origin that the food. For example, a natural pairing would be Wild Boar Ragu with a Tuscan Sangiovese. I’m always a big fan of traditional pairings and agree that they should be utilized 99% of the time. However, when you’ve got a dish that’s as big a polyglot as Seven-Layer Dip, you’ve got a challenge on your hands—and an opportunity for me to play sommelier, to think outside of the cardboard box and to pair a dish that usually calls for beer with wine.
Initially, that makes this challenge difficult is that there are so many ingredients that scream for attention. The guacamole needs something creamy to accompany it. The chilies need something sweet to balance them. The entire dip as a whole needs something crisp and clean to refresh the palate. After considering a host of options, I settled on Hofstätter Bianco Barthenau Vigna S. Michele 2004 because of the blend of grapes used to make this white. Pinot Bianco comprises the majority of the wine and lends it a nice peachy fruitiness. Small amounts of Chardonnay and a limited amount of barrel aging add creaminess to compliment the avocado. And a small amount of Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc will complement the zing and the heat of the chilies as well as add a level of acidity to cleanse the palate. Finally, the whole package will provide sophistication to seven-layer snackatude.
I suggest you put your beer on ice and give the Hofstätter a spot on your coffee table when you watch this year’s Super Bowl in Miami. Or give the combo a try-out during the divisional championships—if it’s not to your liking, no harm, no foul.
Respecting the Product
Dynamic personality, cutting-edge techniques, great floor presence, and a sparkling TV presence: If these are the components that interest you in chefs, please stop reading now. If, like me, you believe that a chef should be a person who knows how to craft beautiful, honest food, then read on. For over eighteen years I worked in restaurants and was fortunate to meet many brilliant chefs. I also had the misfortune of meeting several who were legends in their own mind—and they were the ones who were spending less time around fire, mise en place and refrigeration and more time around cameras and lights. When I started at IWM, I was curious to meet the man who manned our stoves, and I was introduced to the ever humble Chef Kevin Sippel.
Sippel began his culinary career in his hometown of Buffalo, New York. As a teenager, he began washing dishes at a pub and then worked his way into the kitchen. His Sicilian grandfather later sent him to Italy to help him with his culinary inspiration. Over the years, Sippel has cooked in Italy, France and London, working in many fine restaurants. He spent his last few years in New York working with Scott Conant.
To say that Sippel is old school would be an understatement. Sippel doesn’t talk about his food; rather, it speaks for him. Where many of today’s young chefs are lacing their dishes with foams, deconstructing food and using laboratory devices to prepare their dishes, Sippel employs traditional methods in order to cook from his heart. His cuisine rests in his commitment to source consistently beautiful products. He uses few ingredients in each dish and allows the integrity of the ingredient to carry the dish. The result is something natural, and something beautiful.
One example of Sippel’s commitments to simplicity is where the chef looks for inspiration—for instance, winemaker Josko Gravner. This iconoclastic producer moved away from the ultra-modern techniques that he had championed, even mastered, in order to work with clay amphorae, and this producer’s adoption of ancient methods showed Sippel how a chef could move away from ultra-modern techniques to achieve a state of natural harmony. Sippel embraces techniques that are decades old and have stood the test of time. Some chefs impart their will onto the product, but the result is often something contrived—flavorful yet lacking finesse. It feels manipulated. Sippel’s food is very different. There is a delightful, subtle elegance to his execution. More importantly, he does not sacrifice flavor for technique.
Sippel has the magic in his fingers. His dishes show a profound respect for the integrity of the product. Fish is either served raw or medium rare, always. The delicacy of the tissue remains intact, and the accoutrement complements the flavors. His pastas are made in-house daily and served with traditional sauces with a few simple, seasonal components. This winter he made butternut squash pasta with bone marrow and sage. That crescent moon pasta slid into my mouth and melted, as the understated sweetness of the squash was matched by the herbal component of the sage. The bone marrow gave it the richness that made my toes curl, made my eyes close and made me silently give thanks for being alive.
Macho, as Sippel is affectionately known, handles meat with similar reverence. He lets the product speak for itself. This approach is one embraced by such acclaimed chefs as Eric Rippert from Le Bernadine, Patrick O’Connell at the Inn at Little Washington and Thomas Keller at The French Laundry. These chefs have moved beyond ego to create a sublime sophistication in their cuisine. I am proud to say the young man in our kitchen has discovered this glorious, simple magic at an early age. I’m even happier that I get to eat his food on a regular basis.
Our In-house GPS to Italian Wine
One of the most common dilemmas my clients have presented to me has been that of too many choices. “Will,” they say, “I am so intrigued by Italian wines, but there are so many to taste; where do I begin?”
This query often reminds me of my first day at Italian Wine Merchants when I looked at the store’s walls of carefully positioned bottles, each carefully labeled with its own individual description, and I thought, “That’s a lot of wine on that wall; if I didn’t know anything about Italian wines, where would I begin?” The answer came nearly immediately in the form of a question, as many great answers do: “Well, I said to myself, what do you normally drink?”
The challenge is then diminished to finding a parallel between your normal go-to wine and a comparable Italian wine. While that is a challenge, it’s a beautiful—and tasty—conundrum.
Keep in mind that there are over 2,100 varietals in Italy and the country itself traverses all sorts of climates and soils. This combination of varietals and territorio translates into an abundance of oenophile riches; there is a wine for every wine drinker in Italy. For example, I have found that people who enjoy California wines will enjoy Super Tuscans the most—and that the Bolgheri area gives international varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot an interesting twist that the valleys in Sonoma and Napa do not have. Not better, necessarily, but different!
I call this Bolgheri area the Gateway of Italian Wines. Many people appreciate the sheer Tuscanity found in these wines and find that this quality allows them to grasp the old world qualities these wines have, and where these clients may turn their head and snarl at an aged Barolo from Mascarello, they “get” the Super-Tuscan magic of recognizable varietal and Italian territorio.
Tuscan wines like Le Difese by Tenuta San Guido, Le Serre Nuove by Tenuta dell’Ornellaia and Rosso dei Notri by Tua Rita present a happy introduction into some of Italy’s other treasured varietals, such as Aglianico from Campania, Sagrantino from Umbria and Nebbiolo from Piemonte. As you taste, you learn wine by wine; you appreciate the ones that make you say “now that’s good!” Then you can build a relationship with wines that at first seemed strange and wild. What once was weird and off-putting becomes charming and unusual, as your palate changes and makes friends with the varied wines of Italy. Just be careful not to create a monogamous relationship with just one wine, for the idea is to taste many, not just stick to one!
Let me finish with one last tip that I always share with clients who are new to Italian wine: Italian wines were created to go with food, so in choosing a wine to pair with your dinner, you may want to check out dishes and wines coming from the same Italian region. The trusty adage is the one we repeat here at IWM with regularity: what grows together goes together. Use this guideline; it won’t steer you wrong, and neither would I.
Mad About the Labels
I’m mad about fonts and bananas about Barolo. In fact, type and wine are two of my favorite geek-out topics. (I feel the glow of expert company on this matter.) I got thrills when I first saw the Windsor type family and realized Windsor Elongated was the go-to type director Woody Allen used for most of his title sequences in the majority of his films. Conversely, I recoiled in horror when Pepsi ‘s rebrand chose the woefully misguided kerning. But the real joy comes when my two interests intersect on wine labels.
When viewing wine labels and connecting form to function, I’m sometimes pleased, surprised, delighted or disgusted. From the use of recognizable typefaces from Op Art to Dada, or the seemingly endless mining of the animal kingdom (here, here, and here), wine estates build their identities on the aesthetic of their wine labels. Still skeptical? I can point you to the encyclopedic editions from the Coppola Estate for quick conversion.
At IWM, we taste wine, talk about it and enjoy its pleasure. We can break down a Giacosa label and expertly inform anyone the precise differences between his red and white labels (red = riserva, white = non-riserva, for starters). We can even discuss the conceptual aspects of the Gravner labels. Yet while we don’t choose wine by their labels, (though we understand this is a common practice, conscious or not), we understand that reading European wines can be no less daunting than decoding a Rorschach test. This estate’s wine embraces this irony. We can all do this kind of wine label parsing, because we’re experts. But I’m perhaps the only one here who gets a visceral thrill from the typeface itself.
While drinking wine has never made me better at creative strategy, discussing the aesthetics of a wine label can be just as thrilling (and contentious) as describing its sensual aspects. I love when these conversations converge. Here’s one to try: Savannah Samson’s Falanghina Sogno Due. Graphic, sexy and eye-catching, it’s a label that gives a visual to the wine within. More than that, however, it makes a wine/font geek like me practically jump with joy.
How I Spent My Christmas Vacation
“That smells like wet, old broccoli.”
“Did someone forget to change Annabelle’s diaper?”
“Eww, why would you do that to me?”
We were off to another banner start for the Deas Christmas Eve dinner, and I was rewarding and/or torturing my family with wine and cheese finds from the field. Sitting captive, they were waiting for their safe, traditional homemade Gumbo to arrive. I surveyed all of them, my victims, my audience, my family, and my gerbils in my ongoing experiments in discovering the apotheosis of wine and cheese pairings.
My family’s exaggerated reactions were in response to the well-prepped cheeses that had sat patiently for hours, just waiting to reveal their hidden nuances. Included in the line-up was the Keyser Söze of cheeses, the Vacherin Mont d’Or that, like Alba’s prized white truffles, makes a brief appearance each year to intoxicate the senses with its earthy characteristics that range from mushrooms and truffles to pine wood and alpine flowers. Powerful but understated, and much like the white truffle or a Barolo, the strength of this cheese lies in its complexity and layers. Think Camembert but with more nuances and a signature woodsy note—and “foot” note as my wife puts it. If you appreciate white truffles and are a fan of aged wines, especially the likes of a Beaucastel, Chateau Musar, Bodega y Cavas de Weinert, Bartolo Mascarello, or Marques de Murrieta Castillo Ygay, the Vacherin could be a worthy stop in your next culinary adventure.
What makes this cheese so unique? The French and Swiss argue over its eighteenth-century origin; it’s only available from December to February; and it’s impossible to find (especially my preferred raw milk version—the benefits of getting to know your local cheese monger). While most cheeses obtain their flavor from the spring and summer milk of cows (or goats and sheep), the Vacherin is made from the richer fall and winter milk, and it is these same cows that go on to produce the Gruyere cheese through the warmer months of the year.
But outside the history, part of the attraction of Vacherin is the issue of finding some wine to complement it. Conventional wisdom say to employ the adage “what grows together, goes together” as a guide. I believe that is a great guiding principle; however, part of food and wine is about discovery, and I was interested in going beyond the Jura Mountains’ Arbois or Vin Jaune for this match. I knew from earlier tinkering that something magical happens when the mushroom notes of the cheese are touched by Champagne, and the Roger Coulon Brut Reserve echoed the flavor profile just fine. Likewise, an earthy Pinot Noir is an obvious candidate and the Bodega Chacra 2006 Cincuenta y Cinco did the job, although the wine picked up more of its mushroomy aspects 36 hours later when the wine had more aeration, which made for a better pairing on day two. I was also pleased with Marques de Murrieta Castillo Ygay 2001 Rioja Gran Reserva Especial. It wasn’t the obvious pick, but this Rioja is all about soft fruit, earthy notes, and aged wood, and it provided a complement to the cheese.
I’m a restless inventor, however, and next Christmas I am looking forward to trying some additional Champagnes with the prized Vacherin; the Egly-Ouriet Les Vignes de Vrigny due to its richness, or Selosse Brut Blanc de Blancs Initiale for its nutty complexity. What would you pair with the funkiness and complexity of Vacherin Mont d’Or? Or are you not intrepid enough to try?« go back — keep looking »